David Orr watched frustrated, weary. He cast a calm figure in a swirl of anger and noise: aldermen shouting over one another, crying out to be recognized, agitating a crowd of citizens equally determined to be heard. It was after midnight, the culmination of a week of hellish hours and intense emotion; the City Council meeting was really just beginning, and already it appeared that the majority would steamroll its way to a new mayor. It was as if they were saying to hell with the rules–to hell with you–we’ve got the might of the majority and we’ll use it to get this over with. Anything so that Gene Sawyer won’t have a night to sleep on his decision.

Those backing Sawyer knew precisely what they were doing. The rules are straightforward: when a new motion is introduced, it is assigned to a committee. “All ordinances, orders, petitions, resolutions, motions, communications or other propositions shall be referred, without debate, to the appropriate committees and only acted upon by the City Council at a subsequent meeting.” The council can skip this step, as it often does in a variety of routine matters, only by suspending the rules, which requires the consent of at least two-thirds of the aldermen. Ed Burke knows all about it. In 1977, in the City Council meeting that elected Michael Bilandic to take over after Mayor Daley died, Burke introduced a motion that called on the council to suspend its rules and vote right then and there for Bilandic.

Burke’s side had the required 34 votes back in 1977, but not last December. A number of black Sawyer supporters had peeled away in the previous 24 hours, leaving the Sawyer forces short by a handful of votes. But that didn’t stop them. As soon as Orr sent their key resolution to committee (this was Burt Natarus’s proposed procedure for electing the new mayor), the shouting began. Burke’s majority called this action of Orr’s a “ruling” and appealed it; a simple majority was all they needed to overturn a ruling from the chair.

Orr was the acting mayor, it was his meeting to run, but what could he do? At least a couple of Orr’s allies looked at him in frustration–why was he letting this happen? Advisers whispering in Orr’s ear were offering contradictory advice. There had been no time that day to plan parliamentary strategy: the earlier council meeting seemed to go on forever, thanks to endless eulogies by aldermen who’d had no use for Harold Washington when he was alive. And then there’d been a million and one other hassles to deal with. Later, after it was all over, Orr would conclude that the course he followed was the wisest, all things considered. He let the majority overrule him. This, he figured, was a matter for the courts to decide, not the chair. He had not made a “ruling”; the procedure was stipulated in the council’s rules; the two-thirds vote to suspend the rules is a procedure that plays a role in virtually every council meeting; surely the press would pick up on the blatant infraction.

But accounts of the council’s selection of Sawyer as acting mayor focused on other events from that night. When Tim Evans challenged the legality of the proceedings, commentators made him out to be the sore loser of the year. Perhaps he was, but he was not without a point. The press carried barely a mention of the parliamentary confrontation, let alone any analysis of it. (Another move that went unnoticed, according to Orr, is what he describes as the Burke faction’s “scheme to elect a white that night.”) All five of the city’s news stations broadcast the City Council proceedings live–and there were so many reporters looking on it was difficult to negotiate one’s way through the back corridors of the council chambers–yet in the end it seemed that the Sawyer faction had pulled a fast one in the dead of night.

David Orr has a fascinating story to tell. He was acting mayor during one of the most interesting weeks in Chicago history (and, some would say, during 24 of the most interesting hours in the annals of U.S. urban politics). Many gaps remain in our understanding of that week. The city was besieged by events. Reporters and pundits barely had time to contemplate one scene before another was demanding their attention. Keeping up was almost impossible. Even key players now have trouble distinguishing one day from the next. Orr saw it all from a unique vantage point, and with a unique perspective. He is a history professor by training–he taught for ten years at Mundelein College before beginning his political career. In the question-and-answer sessions we conducted for this article, he sometimes showed flashes of that old history teacher, delighting in the chance to look at events from a variety of viewpoints, eager to examine history even when it was of his own making.

We spoke formally four times over the course of several weeks, for about six hours all told, and we covered many more topics than can be included here. With Orr’s permission I have condensed the conversation, and per our agreement he has read the final result. Though he approves of the quotes that appear here, he has expressed some dissatisfaction with my selection of material. Generally, he believes this article focuses mainly on the negatives and on the minicontroversies we talked about, leaving the false impression that he was an embattled acting mayor, constantly under siege. Where appropriate, his specific criticisms are noted in the text.

Orr was troubled by many of the things he saw and heard while he was acting mayor. At times the actions of his allies frustrated him more than those of the Sawyer forces. Though he was generally less willing to reprove friend than foe in our talks, he did frankly criticize several supposed cohorts. And he was reflective about, not to say downright critical of, his own actions. Someday he intends to write his own detailed account of that week for posterity’s sake. In the meantime, this is his story:

News of Harold Washington’s heart attack was already spreading fast by the time word first reached vice mayor David Orr. Orr was out in the ward, playing the part of crusading alderman confronting an allegedly underhanded liquor store owner. It was the sort of scene a hack writer might create for a character in a miniseries, a young-looking, vaguely Kennedyesque 43-year-old man who gets caught up in various causes and movements for social change. Orr was wearing jeans, running shoes, no tie.

By the time Orr had changed his clothes and was finally on his way downtown, nearly one hour after the mayor was stricken, radio broadcasters had already run out of intelligent things to say, so they turned, apparently, to uninformed opinions. Orr found John Madigan, of WBBM radio, particularly annoying. “Madigan was on the radio confusing people,” he said. “I’m sure it was all unintentional but a lot of what he was saying was dead wrong. He’s an older reporter, and he remembers the Daley era, when there was that confusion over whether Wilson Frost or someone else takes over after Daley died. [Frost was president pro tem of City Council.] But the law was changed because of that, and the vice mayor’s position was created. The law is real clear.”

Orr cited Madigan’s error several more times in the course of our conversations. Madigan’s “confusing people in this period of mass confusion” was no doubt a source of Orr’s irritation; his day would be hard enough. Yet Orr acknowledged that there might have been another set of feelings coming into play. It wasn’t just any commentator botching it but John Madigan, a salty curmudgeon best known for his radio editorials in defense of Mayor Daley and his machine. (A couple of years back, a photograph of Madigan shaking hands with Daley’s son could be found in the City Hall press room. Beneath the photo was a bogus caption that went something like this: “State’s Attorney Richard Daley thanks longtime radio broadcaster John Madigan for apologizing on behalf of his father all those years.”) Perhaps this distraction was perversely comforting for a dyed-in-the-wool antimachinist like Orr, a sense of continuity at a time of great emotional confusion. Perhaps his friend was dying, the spotlight was suddenly on him, everything was uncertain, but at least the machine’s radio apologist was still screwing up the facts.

Orr was not heading for City Hall, nor was he on his way to the hospital. His destination was 30 W. Washington, the mayor’s political office. That decision, made by Ernest Barefield, the mayor’s chief of staff, troubled Orr, for several reasons. For one thing he felt that Barefield was being overprotective of him. “I think what Barefield thought is that City Hall is just crawling with reporters, and we want to brief you on what’s going on and the moment you step foot in City Hall you’ll be mobbed by reporters,” Orr said. “I regret that. It makes me look like I’m ducking the press when I can handle myself with the press. I would have explained that we’re waiting for news just like them but right now I need to meet with Ernie and others, that we’ll have a press conference as soon as we know anything.”

Orr was also troubled by their meeting at the Washington coalition’s political center rather than at a place of government. It was the wrong symbolism, if nothing else. But Orr was not yet acting mayor, just the vice mayor standing by in case the worst should happen. At that point Washington’s top aides were pulling things together. Yet he felt they stood in his way. “I felt I had a pretty good idea of what was important in those first few hours,” Orr said. “Through the week I don’t feel that I was hungry for the camera or anything like that. But given there was all this confusion with Madigan and others, I was anxious to get the briefing over with so I could appear before the press. People all over the city were in shock and disbelief, people were troubled and hurt, there was a lot of confusion about what would happen next. I felt it was crucial, right from the beginning, to set the right tone–a calm, reassuring tone.

“I was anxious to do that but there were others. . . .” His voice trailed off.

Orr remembers that Eugene Sawyer, who had also been called to 30 W. Washington, seemed the best-informed person there as to Washington’s real prognosis. “There was a rumor while I was at 30 W. Washington that the mayor was dead. Everyone broke into tears. This was long before he was actually pronounced dead. That came through Sawyer, who got it through Burke.”

Through Burke: that seems strange–

“Oh, no. Burke has his connections in the Fire Department, the Police Department. [Burke was once a policeman and later chairman of the council’s police-fire committee.] I remember in my first year in office, in 1979, when the pope was here. It was one of the best examples to me of how the City Council was like a little boys’ club. The aldermen were so desirous of getting as close to the pope as possible. Somehow, Burke had gotten through his connections these Secret Service pins. So he could strut beyond the line where everyone else had to stay back. And I remember Terry Gabinski, ‘Come on Eddie. Please–please: can’t you get me a pin?’

“So Burke has these connections. Presumably he heard from a paramedic or fireman, so he called Sawyer to tell Sawyer that the mayor was dead.”

In a small, fitting twist to the last chapter of the Harold Washington story, Ed Burke is better informed than Sawyer and Orr. Technically the mayor was not yet dead, but the paramedics knew. Burke knew Washington’s fate sooner than countless close allies of the mayor. Indeed, it’s quite possible that Burke knew the true gravity of the situation before even Barefield.

The call came at 1:36–the mayor was dead, Orr was needed over at the hospital. He rushed over, but it would be 35 minutes or so before Orr would actually take the podium and assure us all that he would indeed act as mayor until the City Council selected a more permanent replacement. The delay seemed quintessential Chicago: putting the kibosh even on the mayor’s death.

Gary Rivlin: Was the delay a matter of getting David Orr to the hospital?

David Orr: No. I’d say there was at least a half an hour, probably more, before I managed to get into the press room. I would say the delay was for me and for others, but more for the others.

GR: Others? Al Miller, who would make the announcement that the mayor was dead, was at the hospital all along. Barefield was at City Hall, at most ten minutes from the hospital.

DO: I don’t think Tim [Evans] was there yet. Some people, I know, wanted Tim there. Remember, this was all a chaotic scene, and everything didn’t happen right away.

GR: Tim Evans–why hold things up for Tim Evans? That would seem like an endorsement right there.

DO: Dorothy [Tillman] was there. A number of aldermen were there.

GR: I can see why someone like Evans would choose to be there, but to wait for Evans–

DO: I don’t know if they did wait. I know he was asked to speak at the press conference [at the hospital] but if you’re asking me whether or not I had anything to do with that, or whether I can tell you who all was behind that, the answer is no. It all happened confusedly. I know that some of the delay was because the doctors wanted to make sure I felt comfortable about everything that was done to save the mayor in case a question came up about these rumors–apparently, Walter Jacobson had something on earlier in the day criticizing the paramedics. I don’t know, I didn’t hear it, but Al Miller was furious [about Jacobson’s comments].

But that was only part of the wait. Obviously, there’s a story way beyond what I know.

[After reading this section, Orr commented that the Evans “controversy” is blown out of proportion, giving too much space to an “alleged controversy.” He said Tim Evans was hardly a factor in his mind during this period.

[Alton Miller acknowledged that the wait for Evans delayed the announcement by nearly a half hour. “He’s always, forever late,” Miller said. It was “a political choice,” Miller offered, and probably a mistake, if for no other reason than it didn’t help much. “The idea was that if there was something to be gained from communicating continuity, to communicating stability, then maybe more could be gained in Tim’s favor by Tim’s being part of that thing. It was clearly futile, and maybe pointless, though I don’t think that it was counterproductive.”]

GR: Media accounts in those first couple of hours had you and Sawyer [who was president pro tem of the council] locked in a power struggle over who was actually the acting mayor when it still seemed Washington had a chance at survival.

DO: No, that’s all wrong. That’s what I meant when I said that Madigan and others were creating confusion. The president pro tem has nothing to do with all this. The pro tem’s only function is to chair a City Council meeting when the mayor is out of the room.

GR: Was Sawyer claiming otherwise?

DO: No. There was no controversy whatsoever. Remember, we were together during this period over at 30 W. Washington. Gene and I got along fine throughout the week. The night of the City Council meeting, I remember a few times catching Gene’s eyes during a few of the more wild speeches. We both looked at each other and rolled our eyes. So, no, there was nothing between me and Gene. What there was was some confusion about the process if, in fact, the mayor had been stricken in a way that laid him up for a few weeks or a couple of months.

GR: A heart attack the mayor survived . . .

DO: Right. The procedure is that the City Council would have to vote that he was incapacitated, based on medical testimony. If there were two or three weeks of wrangling over who would actually take over, then it’s not clear whether the vice mayor would be the mayor, or whether there would be no one taking over until the council had voted.

GR: But Sawyer, as president pro tem, would have no claim on the mayor’s seat through this process?

DO: Right.

GR: Did you have a good idea of what you wanted to say when you finally got a chance to speak to the press?

DO: As far as any time I appeared before the press, I was very conscious of three things from beginning to end. One, I was concerned about orderly transition. I also was concerned with setting a tone of solemnity and respect for this great man we had all lost. I also wanted to show, wherever possible, black-white together. That’s why you might have noticed at that press conference at the hospital, and later that night, and at the press conference that next day, and when I went on some of the television stations that night, it was almost always with Ernie. It was not that I felt I needed a companion to brief me on things. But we all thought this was important.

GR: That may explain something that struck some of those watching the Thanksgiving Day press conference on television [the day after Washington’s death]. Barefield seemed like he was really the one running things. Sometimes it seemed like a pro forma thing that the acting mayor had to answer the question. He would whisper the answer in your ear and you would repeat it for reporters.

DO: A lot of people asked me about that. Most of the time Ernie wasn’t even giving me the answers. What Ernie was saying over and over is that I should use the term, “the sense of the body.” He was trying to remind me to make it clear that I was speaking on behalf of the City Council and not only myself. I know it looked bad. I certainly didn’t appreciate the inference in the press that Ernie was giving me all the answers.

I’ve thought about that since that time. Had it been any other situation, I’m confident I would have turned to Ernie and told him to back off, because it was certainly no help. It didn’t help sometimes trying to hear the end of a question and having him in my ear. But, remember, I said I was real concerned with black-white together.

GR: Barefield broke down at that press conference. Did you also find Thursday a harder day than Wednesday, once there was time for you to think?

DO: For me personally, I didn’t find it terribly hard to be cool under fire on Wednesday. I don’t know why, but I knew that my thing was to just be out there and be in control. Thursday was much sadder for me. It was a harder day. I kept thinking of things we had done together. I thought about the time we went to China and Japan together. I used to poke fun at the mayor about his weight, being both serious and kidding. One time we were sitting around and he said to me that the one thing he couldn’t stand is when they draw me like a walrus. I thought about what he would have thought if he saw what some of these people were up to as soon as they heard he died. I thought about the role the mayor was going to play in the ’88 presidential election, on fighting for the urban agenda. I expected him to play a key role. That made me really sad.

It’s not like I had that much time for reflecting, though. I worked that night [Wednesday] until 5 AM. I could have gotten more done except that some of the people I needed were, frankly, not available.

GR: You mean emotionally unavailable?

DO: I mean both in an emotional sense, because of the tremendous loss, and because so many of the mayor’s key people were planning the funeral, the various memorials, planning for the body lying in state. That took up an enormous amount of time and energy. So one of the difficulties, one of the challenges for me during that time, was getting as much of a handle on things, recognizing that Ernie and the mayor’s secretary and very good friend Dolores [Woods], and Brenda Gaines–so many of these people were involved in a million issues around the arrangement of grieving the mayor. The family was an issue: some of the things they wanted conflicted with security, or conflicted with what some people in the administration thought.

GR: Was political work another distraction? The gossip columns made it sound like Barefield, Grimshaw, Miner, and others were spending all of their time trying to organize on Evans’s behalf.

DO: I honestly can’t tell you how they were spending the bulk of their time. If they were doing it, it’s not like I saw it. All I know is that there are all those things to be done that I just talked about, plus the honest grief. You’re talking about people for whom this man was like a god.

GR: You mentioned that you were there till 5 AM that first night, and you would have stayed later. What was there to be done?

DO: Much of my time was spent on preparation for succession. There were lots of discussions–and, frankly, lots of disagreement–over a countless number of questions. Could the vice mayor, as acting mayor, still vote as an alderman? How many votes would it take to elect the next mayor? Twenty-five? Twenty-six? Who could call a meeting–does the mayor call the next council meeting, or do the aldermen? Do you have to suspend the rules? Does the interim mayor have all the powers of mayor? I knew these questions would come up in the Thursday press conference.

The advice I got wasn’t always the best informed. It was difficult, it was a difficult time for everyone. But for example, I was told early on by top people–

GR: Like–

DO: I don’t think the names are important. People told me that the mayor–in this case me–can call a meeting within 24 hours, but that the aldermen could do the same only in the case of emergency. Otherwise, there would have to be a three-day wait. That was the interpretation I got, but those who said that the aldermen can call a meeting within 24 hours only on an emergency basis were wrong. So I was running on the impression that we were operating on three days’ notice, unless I chose to call a meeting. I was asked that question at some point, and I gave what I thought was the correct answer, but I later learned from [corporation counsel] Judd Miner that that was wrong. I don’t know if Miner changed his mind or got different advice, but it was one of those things that came to me through the grapevine. Even when the corrected information came out, it wasn’t brought to me directly. It wasn’t a big deal–

GR: It ended up being a big deal. You said that one of your greatest regrets about that week was that there wasn’t enough time to properly mourn the mayor–indeed, bury the mayor–and deal with the politics of selecting a successor.

DO: No, no. I meant it was no big deal that the information wasn’t brought to me directly, that I don’t think anyone was trying to sidestep me intentionally.

My point is that I couldn’t get the total commitment of the mayor’s top people, because they were working on other projects. It was for very legitimate reasons, and I understood that. That was one thing that led me to bring in my own people. They were essential.

One thing I learned–I want to be careful to put this in the right context, because I appreciate the help I got from Ernie and others–but one of the things I realized is that you’ve really got to have your own people there at the top levels, whose instincts you can trust. Whose instincts you know–where you have time to learn and trust each other’s methods. I was a special case, sitting as an interim mayor, and I did bring in a number of trusted friends of mine, but even then I saw how difficult it is to run things without your own people. There were times there when I wasn’t getting all the best information in that short week.

That was the most difficult thing: having the necessary information to make the right decision. Maybe it was a matter of different work styles between me and Washington. What you want around you is people who understand your style. I don’t want someone coming to me saying this is what we should do for these reasons. I want someone coming to me saying, these are the options, and then laying out those options as objectively as possible so that I can choose. You need filtering. You need analysis. But you’re ultimately lonely–it’s you on the line.

I had already decided before the big vote on Tuesday that if this continued for another few days, I would have–how should I put it?–I would have made it much more clear to all the people there that I was in charge. There were meetings where I had to take charge.

GR: Were you involved at all in pushing Evans? It was obvious from the start, even if you didn’t feel comfortable speaking about it, that you would support Evans or Danny Davis over Sawyer. All of a sudden you had these new extra powers.

DO: I wouldn’t say that I was never not involved. But I didn’t play a key role in the political machinations of picking the next mayor, and I wouldn’t consider it until after the mayor was buried. Like I said before, I was concerned with setting the right tone.

GR: By that time it was too late. Sawyer had it sewn up long before the funeral.

DO: I’m not saying I was not involved in discussions. I was mayor and I was in touch with all sides about procedural issues. I had conversations with people. I had conversations with lots, if not most of the aldermen.

GR: So someone like Burke would want to speak with you about the rules on X, Y, and Z issues.

DO: That, or they would want to talk politics. I got calls from lots of people. Dick Mell called several times to ask me to support him for mayor.

GR: What did he say? Your politics are so different.

DO: I know. Mell’s a strange bird. It’s almost like he had a written speech he was giving to everyone. It was like we had no history between us.

You’ve got to remember that there are 28 white votes, with four historically siding with the Washington faction. Mell implied he had 24 votes, though I think he was wrong, because he seemed to count [Edwin] Eisendrath in there. [Some speculate that Soliz was the 24th vote, but Soliz’s Latino cohorts say he never committed to Mell.] You read the papers, you saw all the stuff Mell was offering everyone. Dick is like that. He asked me straight out what I wanted to be. What it would take to get my vote. I remember he called me on Saturday night, which was a key time because as the Trib wrote, Saturday night was the time they were going out to cut the final deal and they needed to know how many aldermen each had on their tally sheets. That night he asked me straight out if I could support him and I said no.

GR: Mell was passing this story that if he could get a 25th vote he had a 26th tied up. Don’t tell me Mell considered you number 25 or 26.

DO: I can’t tell you for sure what he was counting on but, yes, he was basically saying to me that he thought he could get Bloom’s vote if he got mine. I talked to Bloom and knew he couldn’t support Mell.

GR: How seriously did you grapple with throwing your name in the ring?

DO: Not a lot. [Orr pauses] I don’t think I was a serious contender anyway. The only reason I hesitate in saying that is that there came a point that some of the white aldermen were looking for any white candidate. I made an intuitive decision early on, within the first few hours, that what the city most needed was somebody who would be paying attention to an orderly process, not making a power grab, so there wouldn’t be all this suspicion. Everything I did would be watched. But to be honest there wasn’t much likelihood I’d be mayor anyway.

GR: How many votes do you think you could have gotten?

DO: I don’t know, I never pursued that. I will tell you that the public–I never saw so much wonderful public support. In fact, I think if they had taken a poll during that week I would have done very well. I think people thought, “Hey, Orr seems to know what he’s doing. He seems calm, he seems to know what’s going on. Let him run the city for a while.”

GR: There was a call for you to continue serving as interim mayor, to let things settle down before a new mayor was picked. You certainly were getting good reviews in the media: Vernon Jarrett, Jacobson, Mike Flannery, Carol Marin–all of them said, “Orr’s doing a good job, what’s the rush?” Were there times you wish that you had pushed harder to continue serving?

DO: No, I don’t in the least regret the way I played it. Obviously, since I believe I did a good job, and could have done a good job for a while longer, and because I believe that the city would have been better served if we hadn’t had that ugly fateful night and been given a few extra days or a few extra weeks, we all would have been served–because of those reasons, if the opportunity was there, I was ready to serve another week or two or a month or whatever was necessary. I was getting myself prepared. That would have been attractive, despite all the adjustments and the physical drain.

I didn’t think I was in a situation where I should actively campaign for it. The warm treatment that I got from the public and the press during that week I’m not sure would have been so warm at all if I had implied early on that, hey, Harold picked me so why not me? It’s kind of like the Mario Cuomo treatment: when you’re out of it, people treat you better.

So I was not going to encourage it. I just think it would have been inappropriate for me to say heck, I like it guys, can I stay a while longer. My position was that I was interim, it’s up to the council, and that’s the way I handled it. The only way I would put my name into consideration was if there was a deadlock, or if some of the black aldermen had turned to me as a compromise candidate.

GR: Which was unlikely. It’s not like you were too popular with a great number of your fellow aldermen, including a good portion of those you would call allies. Many of your positions over the years haven’t earned you friends. Your tenants’ bill of rights didn’t help–forcing aldermen to either vote against tenants, thereby losing popular support, or vote against landlords, thereby losing financial support. Or your calling for a cut in the number of council committees. Or your hard push for the ethics ordinance. What was it that Anna Langford called you?

DO: [Laughs] It was a ten-minute tirade. I was a goody-two-shoes, I’m holier than thou. She said to me that she’s got more integrity in her little finger than I have in my entire body. Stuff like that.

I think Larry Bloom, Jesus Garcia, Luis Gutierrez, Danny Davis, several others–we all share a certain animosity from machine aldermen who like to see themselves as basically good people. It’s not so much a matter of being “too good,” the way some people were putting it, as having a set of political beliefs that others find threatening.

GR: Local folklore has it that once you’ve sat in the mayor’s seat, you don’t want to leave. When you feel the power, when you begin to feel the sense of that office, somehow it’s hard to leave that seat when you’ve got a chance to stay there longer.

DO: Well, first, I don’t want to get too technical, but I wasn’t actually sitting in Washington’s inner office. I kept that closed out of respect for the mayor. I was working partly out of my vice mayor’s office and partly out of the mayor’s conference room.

But sure it’s hard to turn from it. It’s not the trappings of the office, in the sense of people calling you honorable and security people picking you up in city cars. What was really nice to me–if you want to call it the trappings, fine–was the way the public treated me. Friends thought I was a little weird but I went down to the rotunda at least a few times a day to view the mayor’s body. To look at the mayor lying there. People might have thought I was getting morbid or something. But the way others who were gathered there treated me in situations like that–

GR: That does sound a bit unusual.

DO: I’m not sure of my motivations as far as stopping to see the mayor’s body. If I was coming into the building, it seemed almost disrespectful to go straight to the elevator. I don’t know, sometimes I’d be thinking about him, it’s like I wanted to walk downstairs and have him give me a wink. Maybe it was part of the grieving process, I don’t know.

GR: I interrupted you. We were talking about the temptations of the mayor’s office.

DO: My point about going to visit the body is that it gave me a chance to feel the support of the public for the job I was doing. I didn’t go down for that but I was amazed by the warmth of the reception. Literally tens of thousands of people were waiting in long lines, in the cold and rain, in shock and grief over their fallen hero, and they all wanted to touch me, to thank me for being there to express our collective grief and a sense of loss. That was really touching to me.

But, more important–much more important–is that even though it was interim, I felt like I could affect things. Most legislators at some time in their lives want to be executives. They don’t want to be only one of 50 or one of 435. For a lot of us, if it was there for the taking, certainly to have the power–I’m a very cause-oriented person. I believed very strongly in this stuff for 20 years. And that’s what gets on your mind. Boy, what if I was here for a while. I could do things. What I could do for housing. Could I do something positive for race relations? Certain of the white ethnics couldn’t simply attack [me] in the same way they attacked Washington. Many of the policies Washington stood for should have gotten tremendous support from the 40th Ward, and the 39th Ward.

GR: Like cuts in the work force to reduce the payroll.

DO: Absolutely. These aldermen talk about the overburdened taxpayer but then don’t support the mayor’s cost-cutting measures.

GR: You mention you chose not to use the mayor’s inner office. One of the gossip columns teased you about that–INC., Sneed, one of them. They spoke of you running the city on a single phone line.

DO: Did they? I didn’t see it.

GR: The implication seemed clear to me: that we shouldn’t take you seriously, that you were mayor in title only. There were a couple of swipes along that line. Plus there was the image of Barefield whispering in your ear.

[Orr cites this question as an example of this interview ignoring the media’s overwhelmingly positive response to his tenure–“the vast majority of reporters were very supportive”–for the sake of a side point that was not very important.]

DO: That sounds like Sneed. You know, the advantage of being mayor over alderman when it comes to this sort of thing is that you get a chance to show otherwise. In this case, what do I care if they write stuff like that, because millions of people got a chance to see for themselves, to make up their own mind. Sometimes when you’re an alderman, you may get little digs like that, as Sneed did when she called me “David ‘Waiting for Harold to Die’ Orr” a month before the mayor did die. Something really silly like that. As an alderman, you don’t have a chance to respond. People don’t get a chance to see you so you can’t effectively counteract that. Anything said during that week doesn’t bother me much because everyone got a chance to witness how I acted as I did.

If my style was relatively low key, I would hope Sneed or anyone else would understand that that’s not a question of force or power, that’s a question of style during a time when the city was supposed to be in mourning. To turn it around, those same columnists a year ago were lambasting me as being a press hound trying to push through the ethics endorsements. The Sun-Times, while they endorsed me last election, said Orr was a fine alderman except for occasional cases of grandstanding.

In terms of the number of phone lines–

GR: No, no. We don’t have to get into that.

DO: Well, I assure you that I did get my phone calls.

David Orr’s relations with the media are generally good. If reporters don’t quite take seriously his causes and the causes of his allies both in and out of the council, they at least see him as well-meaning and sincere. And he’s good for a story every once in a while. To reporters’ minds, that alone places him at least a notch or two above most of his colleagues.

Orr in turn gets along with reporters just fine. A student of modern-day urban politics, he appreciates the importance of the media’s role in politics. He also appreciates the great limits of the media, their fundamental shortcomings. He believes that an ideology of cynicism pervades the coverage of local politics, undermining any movement pushing for significant change. The superficiality of the press is another of Orr’s pet criticisms. A few years back, he lambasted reporters for portraying the Council Wars situation as a matter of black versus white. They were simplifying the truth to the point of absurdity: if that’s all it is, he asked reporters rhetorically, then how do you explain me?

At times Orr sees himself as a victim of the media’s biases. He likes to think of himself as an issue-oriented politician, yet the media don’t devote much time to the discussion of issues. Marty Oberman has always been more their kind of antimachine politician; he can blast and denounce with the best of them (he can also sniff out a media opportunity with the best of them). Orr thinks his forte is as a legislator; he is proud of bills like the tenants’ bill of rights, the nursing home bill of rights, and a series of housing-court reforms, and he boasts that his list of legislative victories bests any other alderman’s. But his strength is lost amid the footage of shouting that typifies television’s coverage of local politics.

The media slight Orr in another way, too. They consistently lump him in with people like Oberman and Marion Volini, labeling the lot of them “lakefront liberals.” (Orr, it should be noted, was not at all comfortable with this part of the article, given his respect for Oberman.) That designation is deceiving, if not for what it says then for all it leaves out. Like Oberman and others, Orr has been an outspoken advocate for open and honest government, for cost-efficient government, for decisions to be made based on the merits rather than parochial political concerns. But Orr is more than a good-government reformer; he is an activist. He has more in common, politically, with Jesus Garcia and Danny Davis, aldermen from the west side, than with Oberman. Orr’s popularity among Chicago’s activist-left community underscores the point. Oberman may be popular among IVI types, but he would never win popularity polls among those fighting for affordable housing, labor, and nuclear disarmament–those who have historically defined “antimachine” and “reform” as far broader than a call for good, clean government. These activists are confident that Orr will remain true to a progressive agenda; they trust him in a way they don’t trust Oberman when he’s out of their sight. Like Garcia and Davis, Orr is one of them–he is an activist turned politician, now sitting in the City Council.

Word was that Mayor Washington was angry with Orr just before his death. This was confirmed by two of the mayor’s confidants. One offered that the mayor was angry at Orr–“he felt him an ingrate”–for essentially the same reasons he was displeased with some of his Latino allies, and with activists inside the black community: a chorus of these people were saying that it was no longer good enough to have a mayor who represented their politics; with the Vrdolyak challenge out of the way, they would put pressure on the mayor. It would be insurance that he would indeed come through on behalf of those who had put him in office. “Now is the time to be more active than ever in this vacuum,” Orr would say in a stock speech to activists prior to Washington’s death. “There’s an internal battle going on inside the administration, among department heads and within the mayor’s council caucus, between those who represent what may be called the progressive agenda and those who basically represent conservative machine ideology saying, “It’s our turn.” Orr was always sure to add, though, “I’ve been down there watching this, and in cases where there’s been this internal battle, the mayor has backed the progressive agenda almost every time.”

Who can say for sure why Washington chose Orr to serve as vice mayor? Who knows what goes through the mind of a man as he rummages through mental lists in search of a suitable successor in the event of his own death? Perhaps Washington chose Orr because he was impressed with Orr’s background and commitment to progressive politics, more than 20 years of experience as part of “the movement.” Perhaps little about Orr’s background made much difference. Certainly the mayor saw the symbolic importance of the post. “Lakefront balance” is the way one mayoral confidant explained the choice of Orr as vice mayor, like a presidential candidate from the northeast choosing a running mate from the west. But wouldn’t one of the Latino aldermen have served the cause of multiracial politics as effectively as a white alderman? Also, given that the post was always considered a joke to City Hall insiders, the question could be turned around: why would Orr want it?

GR: When offered vice mayor, did you jump at it, or did you have doubts about taking the position?

DO: Well, it wasn’t simply offered. I did lobby a bit for the job. We all knew that there was going to be a reorganization. It was clear that Evans was likely going to get finance [the Finance Committee chairmanship]. I’m very high ranking in seniority–only Evans, Sawyer, and Natarus had more seniority on our side. As some of the discussion was going around, talk was that the mayor wanted someone he could trust and that it might be better if the vice mayor were white or Hispanic for balance and to show the breadth of the coalition. I thought of myself. I was interested in exploring it but the key issue was what the position was going to be. I didn’t want it if it was just going to be Dick Mell-like, where the vice mayor’s role was never more than providing coffee and bagels on the mornings of council meetings.

I finally agreed after I talked to the mayor, who said, “We see this as a very crucial position. There will be changes in the role of the vice mayor. I want a vice mayor who is going to be active.”

The mayor did a good selling job convincing me that this was a critical role. He expressed a lot of confidence in me, a gut-level trust.

GR: Was the subject of his dying broached?

DO: Not directly. I don’t remember all the words he said, but at some point the mayor made it clear that if something happened, he had the full confidence that I could handle the situation. There were other people around, though, who were very close to the mayor who are friends of mine who, now, after the mayor died, told me of discussions they had with the mayor about who should be in this position just in case. There were three different people who said this to me during that week. All three of them said that he had absolute confidence that I would do the right thing.

GR: Meaning your ego wouldn’t gum things up.

DO: I suppose, among other things.

GR: What plans did you have for vice mayor?

DO: We talked about me being active on the national front fighting for urban issues. I was working on the mayor’s behalf with the National League of Cities. I had been involved in it on my own. It’s very issue oriented, and that’s where my interests lie. I was already on a number of policy committees. As vice mayor, the mayor and I agreed, I would expand my role. That would be true for the U.S. Conference of Mayors as well, where I wasn’t as involved. I attended a meeting of the conference in June, representing the mayor when he had some resolutions he wanted marshaled through. He couldn’t get away until the end of the conference.

[In one of many articles discussing the Washington legacy, Tribune reporter John McCarron, maybe the most insightful local reporter on the staff of either of Chicago’s two main dailies, wrote of Washington’s prominence in the U.S. Conference of Mayors, which was “something of a national pulpit for Harold Washington,” McCarron wrote. The mayor was the main force behind the Conference’s National Urban Agenda. Two of its key planks were a five-year, $25 billion housing superfund to fix up the nation’s crumbling housing projects and a housing trust fund that would disburse $2.5 billion a year for use in public-private housing initiatives for low- and moderate-income families. Washington’s hope was that the agenda would force Democratic presidential hopefuls to commit to the problems of affordable housing in the cities.]

The mayor also said he wanted me to represent him at certain events. I said that I was willing to do that but that I didn’t want to do a lot of that. I did a number of things that in a sense made me a spokesperson for the administration. One of the things the mayor clearly wanted from me was for me to be a spokesperson, especially on the lakefront. I said I had no problem with that, but I want to make it clear that I expect to be involved in decision making. I’m not going to be a spokesman without being able to get my two cents in on key decisions.

GR: I’ve heard that you weren’t entirely pleased in your first six months as vice mayor, that you met with Washington shortly before he died to talk about this.

DO: The day before he died, actually. We were talking about the budget and other issues. I told him I was anxious to do more work with the National Urban Agenda. He said good. I told him that sometimes we needed to have better signals back and forth if I’m really going to be a big help. I gave him the example of the most recent meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors that took place just a couple of weeks before the mayor died, where there was a big push for the affordable housing plank. I worked on that in June, I had been working on it for the past three or four years. Yet I had no idea that that was coming up at this meeting.

So I told him that this was the kind of communication I needed from the administration. He said you’re right but you have to push hard. No one is going to try and prevent you from doing anything, but you need to push the bureaucracy.

GR: I’m not sure what to call it–the event at the University of Illinois Pavilion, on Monday night. Most people would best remember it by Vernon Jarrett’s speech. What do you call it: a rally or a memorial?

DO: It was meant to be a memorial service. The intent was that the funeral was restrictive, so this would be a chance for literally thousands of people to participate in some sort of memorial service for the mayor.

GR: It ended up more of a rally than a memorial, to my eyes.

DO: Most of the people asked to speak were ardent Washington supporters for whom, in their mind, memorializing the mayor is the same thing as getting ready to save the mayor’s program. It’s not like it was ever meant to be entirely apolitical. I suppose some people expect a memorial to be much more solemn.

GR: Actually, I was talking more about the last part of the rally. It did get quite out of hand. Richard Steele, the night’s MC, was speaking on the radio the next morning, and he said that there was a set schedule, yet near the end there was almost a coup: people saying the hell with the program, we need to get a message out.

DO: I was displeased by that. I understood it but there was almost a fistfight because [Congressman] Gus Savage was a little out of control. I was backstage at the time seeing this. About the only time I saw [Jesse] Jackson was back there, when Jackson was trying to restrain Gus, and Gus was swinging, saying, “We’ve got to take over the stage, we’ve got to take over the stage.” He was outraged–he along with Dorothy [Tillman] and Bobby [Rush] and lots of others who thought it was incredible what was going on with Sawyer, that they had to take over the stage.

I would have preferred, since it was partially a public-funded event, it should have stayed as nonpartisan as possible.

But it’s one thing to simply attack it as a Burke would do, but another thing to understand the context in which it took place. To these people, what was going on was blasphemy at its worst, and it was being aided by some of their “public representatives.” You take that, and you take the night, you take the emotional pain, you take the fact there had just been an all-day funeral, you take that people had just learned that now there’s going to be a meeting 24 hours after the mayor was put in the ground to jam a new mayor down their throats. Also, it wasn’t these people–Vernon Jarrett, Conrad Worrill–who called for a meeting within 24 hours of the mayor’s burial. Sure, there were procedural rights violated in that there was too much partisanship there. There’s no question, but you’ve got to look at the larger context of these people feeling betrayed, feeling the mayor’s name was being betrayed.

Now remember, I was serving as mayor then. If David Orr was not mayor, and not alderman but was an activist there, I might have been siding with those wanting to educate the public as to the travesty that was going on.

GR: You must have had similar feelings about that Tuesday morning City Council meeting that was to have been a memorial. Politics, not memorializing, turned into the central focus.

DO: I had hoped it would have been a much different meeting–shorter, for one thing. I had hoped we would have had a limited number of speeches, but it just didn’t work because everyone wanted to speak. Frankly, I never got a big charge out of these eulogies where people who didn’t really like someone say wonderful things about him.

GR: I had a hard time with that, too. You understand the aldermanic mentality far better than I. What is it that motivates a Burke, or a Roman Pucinski, or a George Hagopian, all of whom never cared much for Washington and his politics when he was alive, to suddenly speak in gushing language about the dearly departed?

DO: I don’t know. It’s something I never fully understood. To put the best light on it, more traditional politicians have their own notion of respect for the fallen. Some people seem to think that if they’re a politician, they’ve got to speak.

GR: It sounds very old machine, actually: the wake was a political courtesy that marked the days of Mayor Daley. Ed Burke’s father, when he was alderman, was renowned for never missing a wake where he had the slightest connection to the deceased.

DO: I’ve found it a strange part of all sorts of council proceedings, when you’re going to vote on a new appointment everyone’s got to speak on that appointment whether they know the person or not, whether they care for them or not. I probably speak a lot less than my colleagues on those sorts of matters.

It was frustrating for me, personally, because it took time from my preparing for that night. I had to preside over the meeting from around ten o’clock until after three o’clock. I knew all the important things I had to be planning that I couldn’t. The aldermen could walk out of the meeting, to scheme the political part. I was frankly a little hassled at that meeting: let’s just get this over with. I’m generally an impatient person to the protocol, anyway, so I had a particularly hard time. I was sympathetic to the family, too, who had to sit through it while person after person, whether sincere or not, went on and on.

GR: Five-thirty was an odd time to begin the second meeting [the one that went on into the night]. Was it that the three aldermen didn’t officially call for the meeting until 5:30 Monday?

DO: Yes, precisely. That’s an interesting one. Remember, I had made Monday a city holiday. Somehow people got hold of the city clerk [to officially request the meeting], so it was a well-orchestrated thing. I remember thinking, why don’t they just go for Wednesday morning? Thinking back on it, it all fits politically. It was a matter of absolute panic, they anticipated the sort of outcry that occurred. If they could have arranged things on Monday morning, the meeting would have been Tuesday morning. But I guess they felt they needed to wait for the funeral to be done with. Obviously even as they were leaving the funeral, they were busy preparing for the meeting.

It’s interesting the three aldermen who called the meeting: Marlene Carter, Keith Caldwell, and Sheneather Butler. The real movers and shakers didn’t sign their name to it. That often happens because they stick it on others.

GR: So the first meeting is over somewhere between 3 and 3:30. Now that you finally have your chance to start preparing strategy for that night–

DO: No, not really. Basically, from 3:30 to around 9, what I was doing almost that entire time was dealing with the potential of violence and the concern about policing the crowd. For most of this period, I was engaged in discussions with the Evans and Sawyer forces about canceling the meeting. Security had come to me, maybe at 3:45, and said, “We’re honestly real concerned. There are a lot of people coming down here. We’re worried–what if the gang bangers join the crowd? What if things get out of hand?” People speaking on my behalf to both Evans and Sawyer told me that neither wanted the meeting to happen. Gene was nervous about what could happen, Evans was concerned and it was supposedly in his interest to delay things.

Roughly from that time until nine, I went round and round in discussions with Sawyer and Evans. There were lots of phone calls back and forth before I met face to face with both of them. Sawyer said to me a number of times, “I really don’t care. If we think it’s better and safer not to have the meeting, it’s OK with me. I’ll tell my people not to show up on the floor.”

GR: So this is the reason, from your vantage point, that the meeting didn’t start until well after 9, though it was called for 5:30.

DO: Right. For a while, the plan was for me to call the meeting, there’d be no quorum, and then I’d speak to the crowd and explain, ask them to be peaceful.

GR: Which would have suited you just fine.

DO: Sure. My concern at around four or five o’clock was that I’m mayor right now. I’m not intimately involved with all the political stuff. That wasn’t my role then. I’m mayor, and I certainly don’t want to see a big riot in this city while I’m mayor.

GR: How about another factor? It wouldn’t have hurt the cause to put off a vote for a few days, especially with so reasonable an excuse. As you just said, extra time worked in the best interest of the Evans forces, and you were for Evans.

DO: I know my own heart, and my heart at a quarter to five and at five and all that night wasn’t the political side to things.

GR: So it was a concern with the Orr legacy: one riot during a one-week term wouldn’t look good in the history books.

DO: Well, at the time it seemed a real legitimate concern that with hindsight might seem less so. Remember, I’m hearing all these aldermen talking on the council floor about threats on their life, on their family’s life. I was led to believe by security that there were some serious concerns.

GR: So why was there a meeting, if you, Evans, and Sawyer all agreed? [One participant in those meetings, a solid Evans supporter, told me, “Frankly, what I saw was Gene Sawyer saying, ‘Listen, if you think it’s best for the city to cancel this meeting, I’m all for it. I don’t care how that affects whether I become mayor or not.’ Evans was the problem. He felt, ‘Wait a second, the tide has turned in my favor.’ What I saw from Evans was not much concern about what happened to the city or the crowd but concern for what it meant that the opposition was on the run. His mentality seemed, ‘The worse it gets, the better for me.'”]

DO: That’s a real interesting story. We had to wait for Tim for over an hour. I think what was going on was Tim was trying to figure out what his position or strategy should be. Then once I talked with Tim and Gene, both of them seemed to agree–maybe this is seven o’clock–that it would be best to call off the meeting.

The problem then became how to verify it. I mean that was literally going on for hours up there. It was kind of like Russia and the United States. You had two sides that didn’t trust each other, how were they going to ensure the other side wasn’t pulling a fast one? Gene was willing not to go on the floor. He was ready to get out of the whole thing. And Tim–I don’t think he was trying to drive a wedge between things but he was real concerned with a fast one. So I was saying, “OK, Tim and Gene, will you both make sure that you and your top people don’t show up?” But Tim was saying, “I got to show up, I’m not like Gene, these are my people [in the audience].” So Tim took the position that he had to be on the floor.

GR: So ultimately a meeting was held for no reason other than a lack of mutual verification.

DO: Absolutely. It came down to a matter of counting. You’ve got Burke and let’s say 22 of the white Vrdolyak aldermen who are going to show up. I’m the chair, so I’ve got to show up. That’s 23. Then Tim is saying he’s got to show up, and you’ve got Beavers wanting to be on the floor to make sure Evans isn’t pulling a fast one. Suddenly we were up to 25, and that was too close for comfort.

Still, when Sawyer went downstairs to talk with his group, I believe–I don’t know this for sure, I’m basing this on these conversations we had–that Sawyer was going down there to tell his people, “I’ve talked with Tim, I’ve talked with David. Our judgment is to not proceed tonight.” I believe he was asking his supporters, from Burke to Mell to Beavers, to make sure that there isn’t a quorum. That he had to do his part to make sure there was no quorum. I believe that’s what he went down there to do. The rest, of course, is history.

GR: Could you have decided on your own that there wouldn’t be a meeting? Could you have walked to the council chambers and announced, “The meeting was called for 5:30. It’s 5:30 now. Produce a quorum [26 aldermen] and let’s get down to business, or there’s no meeting.” It’s not like you thought the other side was playing fair calling a meeting for 5:30 in the first place, when the mayor was just buried.

DO: I could have gone down at 5:30 or at any time in there and called for a quorum, and if the roll was called and there was no quorum, that would have been the end to the meeting. It would be at least 24 hours before another meeting could be called. Particularly earlier on–at 5:30, 6–I could have done just that. There might have been a quorum on the floor at times, but some of those same aldermen had said to me, “I don’t want there to be a meeting, so if you’re actually going to call the roll I’m going to leave the floor.”

GR: So why not? If more debate and a more deliberate process served the best interests of fairness, why not hit with a quick gavel?

DO: Because I had given my word. I had made it clear to Sawyer, and to Evans, and even to Burke, who had come by earlier. I was really concerned with being fair, despite what some of my colleagues would say. I mean, the only way they could engage in honest discussions back there is if they really understood that the chair wasn’t going to pull a fast one. So I told everyone that. I told them that you have to decide if you really have a candidate. I wasn’t going to take a position that I’m going to decide this for all of you aldermen. That wasn’t my job.

Orr was generally praised for the way he handled himself the week he served as mayor, but his tenure was not without criticism. Opposition aldermen and Sun-Times political editor Steve Neal believe Orr allowed his political biases to get the better of him during the council meeting. Colleagues of Orr’s criticized him for his handling of that same meeting from an entirely different perspective: control of city government was on the line, some allies argued, and this goody-two-shoes Mr. Ethics blew his chance to use the powers of the presiding officer to confound the likes of Ed Burke and Bill Henry.

Orr sees that meeting as three distinct parts. Part one comprised a number of procedural matters. During this period, there were several challenges to the meeting’s existence–the meeting was not properly called, the Evans forces argued, futilely. There were other minor procedural matters, like a motion by Keith Caldwell, a freshman alderman, who moved to strike his name from the list of three who had petitioned for this meeting (by that time Caldwell, who is black, had received hundreds of calls protesting his support of Sawyer).

Part three was the nominating speeches. This was the longest part of the night. By this time, Sawyer’s victory was a foregone conclusion.

The second segment, which began some time after 11, was pretty much the only controversial part of Orr’s tenure. Several key decisions were made during this second segment. Orr was challenged by the majority and, in the end, ignored by the majority, when he ruled that there could be no vote that night without a suspension of the rules, which required several more votes than the Sawyer forces could muster. This parliamentary wrangling is perhaps best remembered by shouts of “I appeal the ruling of the chair.” Alderman Burt Natarus’s resolution spelling out a set of rules for selecting a new mayor, including one controversial provision stating that a candidate needed only a majority of those present on the floor, rather than 26 votes (a majority of all the aldermen), was introduced during this period. This is when Orr ignored, at least for a time, pleas by Sawyer supporters wanting to speak, and called only on those aldermen he knew to be allies. Perhaps that is best remembered by the sight of Richard Mell standing up on a table, motioning for attention.

This second segment was the greatest focus of the interview:

GR: The crowd was a big factor all that night. You were criticized by several aldermen that night, and by the Sun-Times’s Steve Neal in a column a day or two later, for allowing things to get out of control. Are there things you wish you had done differently, now that you’ve experienced that sort of meeting?

DO: I wish we had different aldermen.

GR: Meaning–

DO: If we had a different set of aldermen, we wouldn’t be having a meeting in the middle of the night. We wouldn’t have had a meeting called as soon as the mayor’s body was put in the ground. Basically, the aldermen brought it all on themselves.

GR: So you’re saying their own crassness created a legitimate anger–

DO: Oh, absolutely. I think it sometimes got out of hand. I don’t condone threats being made. Yet, why did they have to move so fast when every alderman quoted publicly said Orr was doing a good job? What was the hurry, except crass political advantage?

Yes, the crowd was antsy. Yes, there were people who weren’t behaving, but certain aldermen were egging them on. The Mell types–they wanted as much trouble as possible. They wanted that because they wanted to promote this notion that a mob was ringing City Hall. It was in their interest to discredit this legitimate protest based on well-defined political views. Do you know any dictator who doesn’t treat legitimate democratic protest as rabble?

GR: The first controversy was your ruling that the Sawyer faction needed two-thirds of the vote to suspend the rules. You were saying only by suspending the rules could the measure be voted on immediately. Otherwise, the measure to elect a new mayor would have to go to committee. On television, it may have looked like you were pulling a fast one–like you knew that your side had lost, so you were pulling this trick out.

DO: This was real confusing for people. One thing I made real clear at that Thanksgiving Day press conference was that the aldermen, once they thought they had a consensus, could call a meeting. What never got fully aired, and I’m not quite sure why, was this whole question of two-thirds. After Sawyer was mayor, some reporters said to me, “David, you were saying 26 all along, yet why were you ruling Tuesday night that you had to have two-thirds?” Some people saw me as playing games. But what I tried to make clear at that press conference is that, yes, it takes 26 aldermen to elect the mayor–when you get there. But you can’t just call a meeting and immediately elect a mayor unless you suspend the rules. You either have to suspend the rules, which takes a two-thirds vote, or you have to send it to committee first.

Maybe during the debates that night, reporters made that clear to the public. I don’t know because I didn’t watch any of that. But I didn’t see much in the written press explaining what happened.

GR: Basically you’re saying that the Sawyer election was illegal.

DO: That’s right. And you know the Burke people knew that. The Burke people knew that they had to have a two-thirds vote to suspend the rules.

GR: So why is Sawyer mayor?

DO: Given that courts are political, too, they don’t like to overturn the decision of a legislative body, especially given the circumstances here. So I think any effort to claim the proceedings were illegal would have been difficult.

GR: Back when Daley was mayor, council independents criticized him at those times he refused to call on them. It was antidemocratic, repressive–they called it all sorts of things. I’m sure you agreed with their analysis, yet that night there was a long stretch in there where you did very much the same thing: you would call on only those aldermen you knew favored your position and ignored those who were against you.

DO: That’s a weak analysis and let me explain why. When we got to the second part of the meeting–when they put the resolution on the floor, the resolution introduced by Natarus–we’re at the most important part of the night. Now, here’s the choice the chair had. I can call on an Evans person, then call on a Sawyer person. An Evans person will ask, say, that the [Natarus] resolution allow for debate over the candidate. It’s put up for a vote and that loses. By then we knew that would happen. Then, when I call on someone from the other side, they would move to close debate. They admitted this afterwards. Their motion would have won because they had the votes. So here you would have had thousands of people in the street, people in the gallery, dealing with one of the most important decisions in Chicago’s history, and they would have cut off debate and we all would have been out of there in ten minutes.

That was one option, which I think is really antidemocratic. The other option, which I ended up doing, is to allow those on the Evans side to make their case. I knew that the Sawyer folks had a majority of votes. So, if you’re trying to be fair, is it fair to go first one side, then the other, like this was a student council debate from high school, or is it fair to allow the minority time to voice its complaints before voting on the matter before the body? Majority rules, but you’ve got to protect minority rights. “Majority rules” doesn’t mean the majority gets to stomp you. It means that after the minority gets its opportunity to present its case, then the majority will win.

GR: But it wasn’t really a chance to debate the merits of the Natarus proposal. As I remember it, it was a series of meaningless motions: to reverify votes that didn’t need verifying in the first place–

DO: Yeah. That was a shame. There were substantive motions to be debated, rather than these silly verifications of the roll calls, which just ticked everybody off. But the Evans side wasn’t all that coordinated, so the motions that were introduced just made everybody angry.

GR: Let’s turn this around. At least a few of your allies criticized you from precisely the opposite point of view. You weren’t partisan enough. To their minds, you thwarted their goal-line stand when you called on Edwin Eisendrath, who called the Natarus measure up for a vote. They claim they were prepared–they had the motions and they had the desire–to pull, in effect, a legislative filibuster.

DO: It was a judgment call. Legally, I suppose, I could have kept on calling on no one but those I knew would avoid closing debate. The chair has no legal obligation to be fair. My sense of fairness said that when we got to the point that we were having verification roll calls, there didn’t seem much sense continuing any longer. It was simply a question of time. It was either then or ten minutes or an hour later. My personal view was that it was time. If Eisendrath hadn’t made the motion, then I think I would have called on someone in the next two or three who would have. Besides, it’s not like I believed at that point that Sawyer could be chased from the floor again.

Frankly, it’s not in my character to be partisan in that situation. I have chaired meetings from the time I was student council president in high school. Despite strong personal views that I have, I do really believe in trying to be fair.

I certainly wish that we didn’t have the opposite side so antidemocratic. If they allowed the debate knowing they had the votes anyway, if it were like a normal council meeting under Washington, then it would have been nice to debate the various points. I would have liked to ask everyone to invoke the Washington tradition and hold off a motion to close debate until everyone had a chance to speak. That’s not technically required. Anyone has a right at any point, if they’re recognized by the chair, to move to consider the previous question. That’s a nondebatable vote. That means that at any time a majority of aldermen can close off debate.

Like I said, as it turned out, no one got to debate that very dangerous number six that Burke and Natarus put into that resolution, that said a majority of the aldermen [the majority of aldermen present], rather than a constitutional majority, could elect the mayor.

GR: I must have missed that. What are you talking about?

DO: There were six parts to their declaration of how the mayor would be elected. The sixth one, or at least one of the six, said that a majority of the aldermen present shall constitute a majority of aldermen to elect a mayor. That flies against everything that the council stands for. State law calls for a constitutional majority, which is 26 votes, on virtually everything.

You had one alderman out sick, so that a majority of aldermen present meant 25 votes, not 26. Maybe they could have mustered 25 votes for a Mell. If two aldermen chose to abstain rather than vote, under the guidelines that ultimately carried the day, only 24 votes would have been needed. If Sawyer and another alderman had chosen to leave the council floor to avoid the vote, remember, Mell and Gabinski were claiming they had 24 votes.

GR: This sixth provision was passed?

DO: That’s right. And I think that was a dangerous, bad precedent. So while I made the judgment that this had gone on long enough, if I could have had my way, I would have encouraged these substantive motions be put on the floor.

GR: Let’s move to part three. Could there have been a filibuster at that point? When Shiller was talking, I thought she was planning to go on forever. Could she have spoken for as long as she had words to say?

DO: No. We generally enforce a ten-minute time limit. If you noticed, I admonished aldermen to finish up when they approached ten minutes. Particularly Dorothy [Tillman] and Helen.

GR: You say “generally enforce.” Do you have any discretion?

DO: We don’t have any filibuster provision, but I suppose I could have cheated. I could have ignored the clock. That wasn’t fair. Washington certainly stopped friend or foe when they went over the time limit. That’s simply fair.

GR: The Sun-Times had an interesting quote in an editorial complimenting you on the job you did that night. “Ald. Orr ruled with basic fairness and charges against him for favoritism were exaggerated. Politicos who doubt this should try to imagine House Speaker Michael Madigan in place of Ald. Orr at the council rostrum and they will appreciate how roughshod and manipulative the presiding officer could have been.” What could you have done?

DO: Oh, there were plenty of things I could’ve done. The most provocative thing I could have done, which was a tough judgment, is that I could have refused to allow an appeal of the ruling of the chair on the basis that there was no ruling to appeal. This is their challenge to the requirement that a two-thirds vote was needed to suspend the rules. It wasn’t the chair’s ruling that the matter that Natarus introduced go to committee–it’s simply our rules. Our rules call for it.

I could have done that. I could have stood there to the next day while they stood there calling for an appeal of the ruling of the chair.

GR: Why not, then?

DO: Remember, I’m balancing lots of things at once at that point. I’m concerned about the crowds outside, I’m concerned about the crowds inside. I’m concerned about the behavior of some of the aldermen. Like I said before, I didn’t have those five hours I had hoped for before the meet- ing started. You’ve got to put all those things together. It was a judgment call, and my judgment, my sense of fairness–

GR: Still, as you were arguing earlier, remaining true to the process doesn’t always also mean fairness. A delay at that meeting might have brought about a mayor more progressive–a mayor truer to your politics–than Mayor Sawyer. So while it may be in your basic being to be fair, it’s also in your basic being to understand the world is more complex than that. There are competing factors.

DO: We’re talking from hindsight here. We’re looking at the rearview mirror. But at that time, in the moments we’re talking about, none of this was particularly clear. I obviously have my point of view, and I certainly want to see my forces prevail. But there’s only so far I think it’s appropriate for the chair to go. I’ll fight as hard as anyone for the agenda but there reaches a point where you hurt your own cause by using methods that are perceived as–what were the words the Sun-Times used–manipulative and underhanded?

GR: Was anyone advising you to stand firm on the two-thirds question, to ignore challenges to the ruling of the chair?

DO: No. It was mentioned. There was some discussion, but it was after the fact. I don’t remember a lot of discussion beforehand. Maybe some attorneys had some good advice, but I was preoccupied pretty much the whole day and evening. Maybe if there had been more time for strategizing.

One thing that did run through my mind is that Washington, when he first came in, tried some similar tactics. Washington’s quick gavel, our side left, and the Vrdolyak forces took over. Since they had a majority, one might argue that something similar could have happened. We lost that one. You know, eventually I would have gone to the bathroom–

GR: –and Eugene Sawyer is the president pro tem, so he would chair the meeting.

DO: Exactly. What I’m getting at is the bottom line here is that I think the results would have been the same whatever I did. Number two, the bitterness, the acrimony in the city would have been worse if the chair had taken that role upon itself to thwart the majority, no matter what it took.

GR: But, as you said, they were violating the established rules of the council. You were on solid ground.

DO: My judgment was different. To my view, I’m not the executioner. It’s up to the courts to decide whether a subversion of the two-thirds rule was proper. There had been talk leading up to this meeting, if you remember, about this whole proceeding ending up in court, like much of Council Wars. It was my job as chair to make the record for the court, to allow aldermen to make their case for the record. Even though I’m firmly convinced the rules were broken, I have to acknowledge that there are certainly differing points of view. I mean, it wasn’t so absolutely clear that the press picked up on it.

You know, to my mind, the point of view you’re expressing right now is, “Wow, wasn’t there some way Dave could have thwarted the whole Sawyer thing?” And I just don’t think it could have been done. If I felt that there really was a way to thwart them, then maybe I would have acted differently. But the way things were, or seemed then, I certainly could have created a lot more acrimony, but not to any positive end. The Sawyer thing was going to happen.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marc PoKempner.